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Off Mic

Capturing the Grief of Strangers

Off Mic

I've always avoided funerals. I sat in the car for my grandfather's, never went to my grandmother's, and holed up in a small room behind the chapel for my father's. But earlier this month, I attended the funeral of a man I never met. Anyoun Mou Anyoun. He was 27 years old. He died in a car crash on his way home from work. Anyoun was a " Lost Boy of Sudan ," one of 3,800 orphaned boys who came to the U.S. as refugees in 2001. About 100 Lost Boys settled in San Diego.

I spoke with two of Anyoun's friends to ask whether they would mind me being at the church. They didn't. But an hour before the service began, I learned Anyoun's cousins were reluctant to have the media attend the funeral. After conferring with my news director by phone, I decided to enter, sit in the back, and observe.

The memorial lasted about 90 minutes. For the first hour, I ignored the audio recorder and microphone in my purse. And then a group of other Lost Boys, an entire pew of them, stood to sing a special song in remembrance of their friend. I couldn't understand the words; it sounded like something between a chant and a song, a chorus of solidarity among men who had shared a common history. I bent down, quietly turned on my audio recorder and propped up my microphone. I felt sleazy. Like a thief stealing a private moment of grief from Anyoun's family and friends. Was I exploiting something sacred?

After the service, I sat alone in the basement of the church to listen to the recording. I was almost relieved when I realized only a few seconds were recorded. Somewhere between nervousness and discretion, I must have accidentally bumped the stop button while adjusting the mic. I thanked my good karma for serendipity.

As a reporter, I have been asked, even ordered, by editors to knock on a grieving family's door and ask for a photo or a comment. I've telephoned at least a dozen widows and parents who've lost children. Some hang up. Others want to talk about their loved ones. It's the worst part of the job. There may be no justification for exploiting a family's grief, but there may be times we can honor a life in a public way while respecting family and friends' privacy. It's always a difficult and delicate balance.

In the end, after meeting and speaking with Anyoun's cousins, the story included one of them, Joseph Amol, reading an essay Anyoun wrote as part of his college application. They were Anyoun's own words that told his story best. A few stolen moments of sound couldn't portray the grief, the love, and the respect that rang through the church that day.

-- Joanne Faryon is a reporter for KPBS News and Full Focus . Please read our guidelines before posting comments.

Kurt
September 07, 2007 at 08:42 PM
That is a very uncomfortable position to be in. On one hand you feel honored to be a witness, but on the other you feel guilty that you're an outsider. I took an assignment to record a funeral a couple months back. It was the funeral of a soldier that had died on his third tour in Iraq. While visiting his home after the second tour of duty, he won an essay-writing contest for a free guitar lesson with a famous classical guitarist. I was sent there to record this performance, as well as some of the sermon, the trumpet sounding, etc. I had to go up front by the casket and set up a microphone stand and sit there with headphones on, recording the sniffles and sobs of the crowd. The fact is though, although I was an outsider, I did mourn that day, I really had no choice as I sat and listened. And despite the discomfort, I did feel a sense of pride as I left that day, like I was helping the family somehow- like I was telling the world that they just lost a young man because of this war, and that justified my intrusion. -----